Reinventing Cambridge’s ‘area committees’

Did you know Cambridge had them? If so, have you been to one? What was it like for you?

When I first found out about these, I took them literally.

Well…they did invite everyone! You can also see the calendar of monthly meetings here. Unfortunately this is only for Cambridge City Council meetings. Ideally we’d have something like they have that Events On The Wight provides with the Isle of Wight. It was something I put in Puffles’ manifesto for Cambridge in 2014 for the Cambridge City Council elections.

“Creating a single website that brings together work already done by Cambridgeshire County Council and other organisations that becomes the ‘one stop place’ for community events and venue bookings. The Events On The Wight (see on the Isle of Wight gives an idea of what I believe Cambridge should be aiming for.”

Theme 7 of Puffles’ Manifesto for Cambridge for the 2014 City Council Elections

89 people in Coleridge Ward voted for this, which was nice. But that was in 2014 – it’s 2021 now and the world we will be moving into once we’re collectively through the pandemic will be a very different one to seven years ago. Who would have thought that council meetings on video conference would now be standard? Accordingly, far more people can see and hear who is saying what from the comfort of their own desktop and laptop – such as the shock live resignation of the Chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council’s Audit Committee on 05 March 2021. The FarmGate scandal continues to rumble on at Shire Hall.

“What’s an area committee?”

It’s the equivalent of a rural parish council – but without the legal status or powers. Any powers that the area committees have are ones that have been delegated to them by a meeting of the full city council. When a local issue is particularly important, you can end up with a very packed room.

One such example was with the Save The Flying Pig Pub campaign – also on FB at The locals at the meeting have good reason to be concerned.

The small pub and music venue above on Hills Road will be swamped by what will be one of the worst pieces of facadism in Cambridge’s history – as shown by the Chair of the Cambridge Residents’ Association Wendy Blythe.

Somewhere in that sea of glass and steel is a pub – the full plans are here.

Local police officers also give quarterly updates at the meeting, and invite councillors to set local policing priorities for the next quarter.

However, as PC Collier Harris of Cambridgeshire Police explained, with such limited resources over a wide geographical area, there is only so much they can do as neighbourhood beat officers. Note the over-400 views recorded on the video’s page shows how useful filming such meetings can be – esp for residents that cannot get to meetings but who would like to stay informed.

“What doesn’t work about the current set up of area committees?

I have my own views, but this is something that could – and perhaps should be put to the residents – both those that turn up (however frequently) and those that do not. Having been to a number of meetings of the East, South, and West-Central ones, I’ve seen how different chairpersons and styles have worked. But the main set up still remains the same: One person having their say at a time, rather than having time for multiple shared conversations and information sharing.

With what effectively are general neighbourhood assemblies for want of another term, and which happen perhaps only once per year in each council ward, are there opportunities to cover many more issues in the two-three hours that meetings are held over? I think there are. In order to make them have a greater impact and presence across our city, perhaps it is time for a re-think in this video-conferencing/streaming age.

Fewer formal agenda items, more group conversations between residents and councillors.

Some meetings are arranged theatre style, others are arranged cocktail table style. The problem with the latter is that not everyone is facing the way of the chair person’s platform. So it can be awkward if the meeting is being run mainly with speakers from the platform and not including informal conversations

Not everyone has the confidence to ask a public question. All too often (and I’ve been one of them) it’s those with the loudest voices or strongest opinions who get to be heard, even though their opinion might not be the most popular either in the room or in the ward. However, priorities at meetings are made by those that turn up. In which case we then must ask how do we incentivise and remove barriers to participation?

More effective advertising – systematic and automated that targets where residents are, not where we want them to be

When I started jumping up and down about this in the early 2010s after leaving the civil service, supermarkets and convenience stores didn’t all have community notice boards. Those that did were ad-hoc ones put up by local staff. Today most of the food shops have a much more consistent approach, specifying size and length of time before posters are removed. It should not be beyond the gift of a council’s communications team to produce meeting poster templates whose details can be amended as and when – with either the council or the shops printing them out and displaying them. I guess it depends what facilities the shops have and how generous they are feeling!

Meetings and meeting papers are still not advertised and distributed on social media as a matter of routine. This is all the more important when big local issues are being debated – such as major new housing developments or significant infrastructure. Anecdotally we know that images accompanying such things grab attention more than walls of text – one of the reasons why I screen-grab maps and charts to catch the attention of people.

Large information boards to generate and stimulate conversations between people attending

Here’s one example from a transport consultation from the Greater Cambridge Partnership, previously the Cambridge City Deal, from back in 2016.

Me with more hair and far fewer greys looking at the now completed improvements to the junction of Hills Road, Long Road, and Queen Edith’s Way in South Cambridge. The background chatter in the community hall at St John’s Church reflects the interest at the time.

Above – from the same event, interview with Sam Davies back in 2016, who has since been made an MBE for her contribution to and leadership of the local response to the CoronaVirus pandemic.

Still a long way to go before we get Dutch-style infrastructure for cycling.

“Who are the real decision-makers and how are they held to account by the people who make up our city?”

In this previous blogpost, I asked if you knew how our city functions, and the people who ran it. The nature of Cambridge’s broken governance structures and longer term party political polarisation has meant that county-level politicians whose political support is from outside the city have been reluctant to host large public meetings to take questions from residents, employers, and young people. Take the previous pair of police and crime commissioners – most residents probably don’t know who he is, let alone know we have one. We are due to elect new PCCs across England – see for who your candidates are, whether inside or outside Cambridgeshire.

For me, part of any refresh of the area committees should involve educating the public about how our city functions, and who is responsible for what. It doesn’t need to involve someone giving a stand-up presentation, rather using a set of large lightweight free-standing information boards that can be reused across the city.

With video streaming now the norm, it means that otherwise very busy people can now book out short slots in their diaries to take questions from the public at such meetings without having to travel there in person.

For example executive councillors, council service directors, county level officials and holders of public office, and even MPs can participate even if it is for a single item that covers 20-30 minutes.

In the case of MPs, council and meeting staff would act as gatekeepers/filters ensuring that issues residents wanted to raise were ones within the remit of their MP and not those that could/should be dealt with by local councillors. I’d also suggest having a format where the 20-30 minute slot is for people who want an issue raised with a minister by their MP on their behalf as a constituent. That avoids potential party-political slanging matches. Again, constituent details can be taken down by council/meeting staff to make the process as smooth as possible.

Showing videos to introduce a topic for debate

Let’s take the consultation on improving Eastern access into Cambridge.

Above – from the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

Corporate video channels:

Above – video links to some of the main corporate channels. What this means is for any senior managers/executives/officers appearing to take questions, the organisation can produce short video footage outlining what the issues are, and go straight into discussions. This might start off with a 5 minute ‘breakout’ where people can talk to each other about the Qs they might want to put to the speaker (as self-filtering mechanism) before responding.

Democracy is not a spectator sport, and the public should not expect to be spoon-fed by their elected representatives – you need to get involved too!

For me, one place to start with is to find out who your elected representatives are. Hence MySociety created the online tool Write To Them. Type in your postcode and the contact details for your MP and councillors come up. With local elections coming up, Who do I vote for? comes into its own, by Democracy Club – who always need volunteers at this time to help input the data of candidates standing for election. Manifestos, websites, campaign pages, video accounts – the lot.

One thing Dr Stella Creasy MP (Lab – Walthamstow) has mentioned at past public events is how she encourages constituents to get involved in local democracy and civic/community life when they come to her raising local issues. “What’s your role going to be in solving resolving the community issue you’ve raised?”

Working together with and through existing community groups

Friends and foes alike recognise the Cambridge Cycling Campaign as one of the more effective community-based campaigning organisations in Cambridge. (*Declaration of interest – I am a member). It is reflected in the abuse all too often seen online whenever there is a local media article involving cyclists – something that Reach PLC executives and the social media tech giants need to get a grip of in their policies and practices. The majority of the campaign’s members are also motorists – around 70% at the last count, thus rebutting the stereotype of an organisation full of lycra-clad car-hating speed-racers.

Another transport-related organisation that has recently formed a Cambridge group is Living Streets. (Founded as “The Pedestrian Association”). Other local groups are affiliated to larger national groups. Cambridge Past, Present, and Future (originally the Cambridge Preservation Society to stop ribbon development & urban sprawl) is affiliated to Civic Voice.

There are many, many more – and the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services is the umbrella organisation that represents the sector on behalf of its members. Quite often there will be representatives of constituted community groups such as residents associations – of which FeCRA is the umbrella group. Given the scale of the changes and the planned as well as already-delivered developments, working together is essential. Otherwise the grassroots voices of the city get lost in the noise of national politics and powerful interests with strong incentives to drive even faster growth at a time when our part of the country is showing symptoms of water stress.

Participating in local democracy and community action is not new – as Dilys M Hill’s book from a previous generation reveals.

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